‘Henry!’ cried Julia. ‘Each time I set eyes upon you, you look more and more like your gorgeous brother!’
Henry glowed. ‘Did you know I’m thirteen now?’ she said, as Julia took our coats.
‘No, I didn’t,’ Julia said. ‘Darling, you are getting old. But I do wish you’d stop growing, you make Sophie and me feel awfully short. Now, come into my sitting room – I was just doing some sewing. This wretched blackout! I had to pack away all my lovely sheer silk curtains, but look, I found this very heavy, dark blue velvet and I’m sewing silver stars onto it. See? When I draw the curtains after dusk, it will be as though we’re outside on a clear night. Well, I say “we”, even though I’ve been completely abandoned by everyone, including most of the servants. Rupert’s just left, actually, off doing his super-secret job in Cornwall this week. He will be sorry to have missed you –’
‘How’s Anthony?’ I asked quickly, before Julia could start teasing me about Rupert (she’s worse than Barnes, sometimes).
Julia sighed and shook her head. ‘Oh, the poor darling. He still hasn’t got over the Soviets signing that treaty with the Nazis. He feels awfully conflicted, going off to war, knowing he’s on the opposite side to the Communists. Thank Heavens we aren’t actually fighting the Communists yet . . . or fighting anyone, really. That’s what I don’t understand. I mean, didn’t we declare war because Germany invaded Poland? But what have we done to help the poor old Poles? We just seem to be sitting back, watching them get annihilated in this awful blitzkrieg.’
‘I suppose the Allies are conserving their resources for when the Germans march into France,’ said Veronica. ‘Or whichever country they’re planning to invade next.’
‘Oh, Veronica, don’t say that! I don’t even want to think about poor Ant going into battle. Can you imagine it? He wouldn’t hurt a fly. Although I must say, he’s loving the actual aeroplanes in the air force. All his letters are about how marvellously fast they are, and how well they turn, and something about g-forces, whatever they are. I’m just hoping he’ll get a job training pilots and spend the rest of the war doing that, but of course, he’ll want to do his brave bit if the time comes. How’s Toby?’
Henry explained about Toby having finished his fortnight of marching drills and lectures, and how he’d been specially selected to train as a fighter pilot. ‘And Julia, he wears a uniform now!’
‘He must look divine in that,’ said Julia. ‘What is it about men and uniforms? Even Ant looks debonair in one. And what’s Simon up to?’
‘He’s in Leicestershire doing basic training,’ I said.
‘Your aunt must miss him, as well,’ said Julia. ‘Wasn’t he practically running her household? And that reminds me – I saw her in Bond Street yesterday and she was very cutting. What on Earth have I done now?’
‘She’s probably still furious that Toby’s in love with you,’ Veronica said dryly.
‘He’s not really,’ Henry said. ‘He only pretended to be, because Aunt Charlotte wanted him to marry that horrible Lady Helena. He told Aunt Charlotte that he was pining away because you were already married, and if he couldn’t marry you, he wouldn’t marry anyone. He’s not actually in love with you.’ Henry peered at Julia, who was almost crying with laughter by this stage. ‘He’s quite fond of you, though,’ Henry hastened to assure Julia.
‘Oh dear,’ said Julia, dabbing at her eyes. ‘He really might have warned me. Your poor old aunt! She probably thinks I led him on with come-hither stares and slinky, low-cut evening gowns . . . Well, I suppose it’s no use asking you girls to come and live here in my Den of Debauchery now.’
‘No, she’d never give us permission,’ I said sadly. I adore Julia’s house.
‘And it’s such a waste, all these rooms empty!’ she said. ‘Of course, Mummy wants me to close up the house and move back to Astley, but I couldn’t bear it. She’d have me rolling bandages all day, or knitting balaclavas, or whatever it is the Women’s Institute ladies do down there . . . Henry, darling, would you run downstairs and see if Mrs Timms has made us that pot of tea yet? And there might be some biscuits, too. You could help her carry it all up.’
Once Henry had bounded off, Julia added, ‘Besides, if I went back to Astley, I’d have to put up with endless lectures from Mummy about how I ought to have a baby to keep me occupied while Ant’s away. She doesn’t seem to realise that might be a bit difficult when he’s off in Scotland – I sometimes wonder whether my poor mother understands the Facts of Life. And as if anyone would want to have a child when we’re at war and no one knows what’s going to happen! So, I really do have to find some sort of job here in London. What do you think I ought to do? I did consider the Wrens or the WAAF, but then, I could get posted anywhere, couldn’t I? And I might not get leave at the same time as Ant, and we’d never see each other. Oh, and that reminds me – you know Lady Bosworth’s daughter, the horsey one? She’s just joined the Mechanised Transport Corps! I ran into her as she was marching out of the recruiting office this morning. I expect she’ll end up a captain or something. Can’t you just see her, ordering people about?’
‘Lady Bosworth will be unbearably smug about it,’ said Veronica. ‘Well – more so than usual.’
‘Yes, but Veronica, it’s excellent news for us,’ I said, sitting up straighter. ‘Don’t you see? The first thing Lady Bosworth will do now is go round to Aunt Charlotte and brag about how Cynthia is rushing to the aid of her country, carrying on a noble tradition of patriotic service, and so forth. It’s the perfect time for us to tell Aunt Charlotte what we want to do.’
Excerpted from The FitzOsbornes at War © Michelle Cooper
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Random House Australia. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.